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An Interview with Animation Technical Director of Avatar - Rob Powers PDF Print E-mail
An Interview with Rob Powers

Avatar - With 9 Oscar Nominations and 3 Academy Wins for "Best Art Direction", "Best Cinematography", "Best Visual Effects" and a mind boggling Box Office Collections that broke all records, the world of Pandora has captured the imagination of moviegoers worldwide.

CGTantra Team recently caught up with Rob Powers, who originated the Virtual Art Department (VAD) for James Cameron on AVATAR. Rob recently joined NewTek as Director of Entertainment and Media Development, and tells us all about his start in the industry, working his way up to a successful career in 3D visual effects and working with James Cameron—and his latest new job at NewTek to participate in the future of LightWave 3D.

Prior to joining NewTek, Rob worked with James Cameron, serving as Animation Technical Director and Virtual Art Department Supervisor for “Avatar” and as CG Supervisor for “Aliens of the Deep.” Rob also worked with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, serving as Virtual Art Department Supervisor for “Tintin.” He worked on Disney’s “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and Jet Li’s “The One,” and was the lead animator of the famous 3D dancing baby on “Ally McBeal.” NewTek also enlisted Rob to use LightWave 3D to create the first 64-bit Windows animation, which was presented by Bill Gates in a keynote address.

1) Please tell us a little bit about your artistic/technical background. Do you consider yourself more of a technician or an artist? And according to you, does it really matters in the industry which one you are called..

A: I was formally trained in cinema production at the University of Southern California Film School. So everything that I have approached in my animation and visual effects career has been from the filmmaker’s perspective. Ultimately what I create is imagery that is appealing with an understanding of basic artistic principles, lighting, composition, form, motion, and music, which really makes a difference. I see the relationship between technician and artist as symbiotic, however, people are generally stronger in one area than the other. Both artistic and technical skill sets are invaluable to the process and it is a good idea to try and understand both areas as much as possible. But I would say that it is good to also know where your particular strengths lie. In my case I see myself as more of an artist with a high level of technical mastery. It all goes back to the main purpose of creating appealing images and the focus on making the work as compelling as possible.

AOD Body Color: Powers created this image for the main title opening sequence of James Cameron's stereoscopic
IMAX film Aliens of the Deep.

2) How did you get into CGI and how has been the journey into stereoscopic production now?

A: I taught myself 3D animation and visual effects, because when I began working, universities weren’t really offering training in 3D computer animation or visual effects. So, early on, I rolled up my sleeves and began learning the Amiga computer system. My earliest work was often on prime time television shows like Ally McBeal or Babylon 5--what I consider to be the golden age of television CGI production in the USA. Stereoscopic production has also been a long-term career objective, and I began working on 3D stereoscopic films at Kleiser-Walczak and continue to do so today.

3) What was your role in Avatar and how was it working on this epic movie with an acclaimed director like James Cameron?

A: Working with James Cameron was a fantastic experience and I was so fortunate to learn firsthand from this amazing director. I began on Avatar in early 2005, and was one of the first original team members to start on the project. I was also the first CGI animator that James Cameron asked to work directly with him on the film. I had three main roles while working on the film. My first role was as Animation Technical Director where I was an active member of the original design team in the Art Department working closely with James Cameron at his house in Malibu. My role then evolved as I set up the industry's first “Virtual Art Department” or “VAD” for the film. I also had the title of “Virtual Environment Supervisor” and was in charge of the team that created the 3D virtual environments and jungles of Pandora using NewTek LightWave 3D as the main modeling application which plugged seamlessly into our full professional pipeline . It was in the Virtual Art Department that 2D concept paintings would be transformed into the full 3D sets that James Cameron would ultimately use to create the film. However, due to the sheer volume of work and the large number of environments needed for the film there were several key environments designed from inception in the VAD including the Jungle / Biolum environment that was honored with the VES award for Outstanding Created Environment in a Feature Motion Picture. I was very proud to see this environment that I personally designed in the VAD receive this special award. The wonderful team at Weta was a great partner of the Lightstorm Design, VAD, and Virtual Production teams and they did a beautiful job fully realizing and rendering the Lightstorm designs that everyone had been working on for so long. It looked amazing!

VAD Hallelujah Mnts
4) What were the main challenges that you faced during the production of Avatar?

A: The main challenges involved pioneering a new workflow and pipeline for a Virtual Filmmaking process that didn’t exist. There had previously been parts of the process used on different productions but never before had it all come together to blend with new technology in the way that it did on Avatar. What our team created was basically a director-centric workflow for animation and visual effects films. Prior workflows required much of the filmmaking process to be 'imagined' within an empty motion capture stage and then put off until much later in the postproduction stage. So the immediacy of live action filmmaking was often lost or severely impacted. This new innovative Virtual Filmmaking workflow with the virtual camera, VAD, and virtual production processes, turned out to be a real game changer for the film making process.

CuticleMonster 4: Concept model of a cuticle monster created by
Rob Powers using LightWave 3D.

5) You have been an old LightWave3D user. How did you start with it and what do you like the best in it for making it your preferred tool?

A: I’m not so sure about an “old” user but I have been a long-time LightWave user. LOL. I started with LightWave on the Amiga computer system, and I was amazed that it offered me, as an individual artist, so many creative choices and options. Before desktop 3D design software on the Amiga, the prohibitive cost of animation software and hardware kept these types of tools out of reach for most individuals. LightWave has always had such a great workflow for independent artists and easily allows them to follow a project through the entire process. There is an artistic reward that comes when you can move from modeling, texturing, rigging, dynamics, animation, and final rendering within one integrated workspace. Additionally, Light wave has lead the way in some very important areas that have become standards in the industry. The polygonal modeling workflow, Sub-d workflow, Point Caching, and Radiosity / HDRI features along with a 64-bit workflow were offered in LightWave 3D long before the other leading software packages were able to implement them. I’ve also always been able to use LightWave well with my other software tools. It plugs into a diverse pipeline in a very straightforward way. So it offers me all of its great features while “playing well with others.”
Phylliroe: Bioluminescent water lifeforms created with LightWave 3D
6) How did you use LightWave to help James Cameron build the film AVATAR and realize his creative vision?

A: I used LightWave in the early development and concept design stage to do character, environment, and model concepts. It was also used later in a diverse software pipeline to model a majority of the virtual environmental assets for the film. These were the real-time sets where James Cameron created the movie.

7) Can you tell us something about your work in the upcoming Tintin?

A: I was the Virtual Art Department Supervisor for Steven Spielberg’s team in Los Angeles. Working closely with the team at Weta Digital on the virtual sets and environments on the film.
JellyColony: A render of a colony of bioluminescent jelly creatures
created with LightWave 3D.
Alien Environment created with LightWave and Vue
AOD Wing Both: Close up render of the
gossamer Alien Wings from the stereoscopic
IMAX film Aliens of the Deep.

VAD Rainforest Gorge
VAD Viperwolf Trail
VAD BiolumFalls

8) Why are you taking a role with NewTek when you were doing all this amazing work in the production industry using LightWave?

A: NewTek has always provided unique tools that empower and allow the artist to do things that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish otherwise. This innovation was the major attraction for me and I look forward to contributing to the future developments of their unique products.

9) What are the main differences or challenges in a normal and a stereoscopic CGI production?

A: One of the most challenging things about stereoscopic production is that many of the 2D postproduction compositing techniques have to be thrown out the window. Stereoscopic production requires the assets to be in true 3D space and most attempts at cheating with 2D projections can cause problems.

VAD Hometree GroundLevel
10) What kind of advice would you like to give budding CG artists in the CGTantra forums?
A: Find your bliss and follow your interests. When you do something that you love and immerse yourself completely you will be amazed at the wonderful outcome.
RobPowers at Avatar Screening

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